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Report: UNC whistleblower goes public, claims school tolerated academic cheating

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

A former student-athlete academic adviser at North Carolina claims she saw grade fraud happen regularly. (Getty Images)

In the ongoing North Carolina academic fraud investigation, a whistleblower has emerged. More important: a whistleblower on the record.

There is someone who has put her name to her quotes, quotes that could prompt the NCAA to dig its heels even deeper with the investigation at North Carolina over academic fraud within the athletic department, most notably the football and basketball programs.

The Raleigh News & Observer's Dan Kane fired a direct salvo at North Carolina's credibility on Saturday, when the newspaper broke the news that a former academic adviser, employed as a "reading specialist" for players at UNC, witnessed blatant cheating happen at the university over the course of two decades.

Mary Willingham described her time with many North Carolina players as surprising and disturbing, given how many of them were "unable to do college-level work."

Willingham said she decided to go public with this because of her frustration over the muted culture of cheating at North Carolina. She stopped working with athletes and moved to another wing of employment at the university four years ago over it.

This is only one person, but one who remains employed by Carolina-Chapel Hill and is putting her name to the accusations. Also noteworthy, these allegations of academic impropriety went deeper than the revenue-producing basketball and football programs.

From the News & Observer:

Willingham, who still works at the university but not with athletes, said she lodged complaints at least two years before UNC's academic problems erupted into scandal. She channeled some of her frustration into a thesis for her master's degree, on the corrupting influence of big-money sports on university academics.

...

Among her assertions:

• The no-show classes that had been offered by the chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies date back at least to the time Willingham began working for the support program in 2003. Commonly known within the program as “paper classes,” they were billed as lecture classes, but the classes never met.

Willingham learned of them when she was asked to work with a female athlete on a paper. Willingham said the paper was a “cut-and-paste” job, but when she raised questions about it, staff members told her not to worry. The student later received a grade of B or better.

• Members of the men's basketball team took no-show classes until the fall semester of 2009, when the team was assigned a new academic counselor. The new counselor was appalled to learn of the classes, and wanted no part of them. University records show the enrollments stopped that semester for basketball players, while they continued for football players.

• Numerous football and basketball players came to the university with academic histories that showed them incapable of doing college-level work, especially at one of the nation's top public universities. ... Some athletes told Willingham they had never read a book or written a paragraph, but they were placed in no-show classes that required a 20-page paper and came away with grades of B or better.

• Roughly five years ago, Bobbi Owen, the senior associate dean who had oversight of the academic support program, sought to rein in the number of independent studies offered by the African studies department, which by then averaged nearly 200 a year. Independent studies required no class time and often not much more than a term paper; they were popular with football and basketball players.

...

Willingham said she met with university attorneys at their request in mid 2010, during the NCAA investigation, to discuss what happened in 2008. She said they thanked her for coming, and never talked to her again. She said she never heard from the NCAA.

Willingham -- who did not give the newspaper any physical evidence to support her story and said she harbors no bad feelings toward the former players -- went on to say that Carolina was admitting players into its football and basketball programs who were not intelligent enough to be attending school in Chapel Hill.

From the pressure to win came the leniency to cheat with grades. And to allow "special admits" to the school, aka, really good athletes with suspect high school test scores/grades. Willingham said the practice of special admits dates back at least two decades (this kind of practice is by no means unique to UNC, by the way). This past summer, North Carolina appallingly put a heavy set of the blame of the school's reputation smear on the players instead of the administration and faculty, who let under-qualified minds in to begin with.

In the past five years, independent-study courses have nosedived for UNC athletes, so the freelance-type classes with little-to-no accountability have dried up. Willingham's testimony to the News & Observer shows clear negligence at multiple levels within the athletic department, some of the worst type of cheating and fraud major collegiate athletics has seen in the past 20 years.

The investigation at North Carolina is not over. Where the school is with its internal review, we don't know. But we do know the NCAA is still working with North Carolina and overseeing the probe.

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